State AG to Take Control of Duke Lacrosse Case

The state attorney general's office has agreed to take over the prosecution of the much-discussed case involving Duke lacrosse players and an exotic dancer. District Attorney Michael Nifong, who faces ethics charges, asked to withdraw.

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North Carolina's attorney general appointed special prosecutors today to take over the sexual assault case involving the Duke University lacrosse team. The original prosecutor, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, asked to be removed from the case yesterday amid allegations he violated ethics rules in the way he's pursued it.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: The announcement by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper brings two of the state's most senior prosecutors to one of the state's most controversial cases. Cooper appointed two of his deputies, Jim Coleman and Mary Winstead(ph), as special prosecutors. They'll take over the Duke lacrosse case 10 months after it began, and will look anew at the evidence against the three former players who stand accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman hired to perform as an exotic dancer at a team party.

Speaking with reporters today, Attorney General Cooper promised a comprehensive review.

Mr. ROY COOPER (Attorney General, North Carolina): We will handle the case the way we handle all of these cases. Our special prosecution section often gets tough cases, cases that district attorneys are finding too hot to handle, or cases where they have conflicts. We will handle it the same way. We will review the evidence impartially and we will move forward.

HOCHBERG: Cooper was asked to take over by embattled district attorney Mike Nifong, who admitted yesterday his own continued involvement had become a distraction. Nifong faces mounting criticism for the way he's handled the prosecution. The North Carolina State Bar has charged him with ethics violations for making statements to the media in which he referred to the lacrosse players as hooligans and alleged a racial motive for what he called a gang rape.

Attorney General Cooper wouldn't comment today on Nifong's behavior, but stressed that the new prosecutors won't be influenced by the old prosecutor's work.

Mr. COOPER: We are taking a completely new, fresh look at this case. So anything can happen. I mean, we are looking at all of the facts, and whatever charges, if any, are appropriate, they would be pursued.

HOCHBERG: Some of the sharpest criticism of Nifong has come from the defense lawyers arguing for the players' innocence. They've accused Nifong of mishandling evidence and have dismissed his continued prosecution as little more than a stubborn vendetta based on the words of what they call a false accuser. Today, defense lawyer Joe Cheshire applauded the decision to remove Nifong.

Mr. JOE CHESHIRE (Defense Attorney): This case has never had a fair look. The prosecutor, Mr. Nifong, always had an agenda in this case from the very beginning and never bothered to look at the truth of the case. He fit the facts to determine what he wanted the truth to be and just ignored the real truth. So we're very hopeful.

HOCHBERG: Cheshire says he considers the special prosecutors fair and able, and is confident that after reviewing the evidence they'll decide to drop the charges. But Attorney General Cooper won't commit to that or any other possible outcome. He says the new prosecutors have to review all the evidence and will probably interview the alleged victim before they'll recommend how to proceed.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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